New nuclear talks with Iran may be possible in coming weeks, U.S. says

December 14, 2012

The United States and five other world powers are hastily preparing for possible new talks with Iran amid signs that the country’s leaders might be willing to meet as early as next week to discuss scaling back nuclear activities in return for future sanctions relief.

The six powers have agreed on a new package of inducements to be offered to Iran if it agrees to freeze key parts of its nuclear program, said U.S. and European officials briefed on the matter. Iran rejected a similar deal earlier this year, but U.S. officials said they were modestly hopeful that Tehran’s position had softened under the strain of international sanctions.

“Our assessment is that it is possible that they are ready to make a deal,” a senior administration official said Friday. “Certainly, the pressure is on.”

The talks would be the first high-level negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program since June, offering at least the prospect of a thaw in a standoff that has grown increasingly tense in recent months. The apparent movement on the diplomatic front came amid reports that Iran had agreed to concessions in a separate dispute with U.N. nuclear officials over access to an Iranian base allegedly used for nuclear weapons research.

There was no confirmation from Tehran about pending talks with world powers. On Friday, a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team expressed skepticism about a possible deal with the six-nation bloc known as the P5-plus-1. “Personally, I am not optimistic,” Mostafa Dolatyar told reporters during a visit to India. But he added: “Everything could be subject to negotiation.”

Three U.S. and European officials briefed on the preparations said Iranian negotiators were discussing a timetable for new talks, which might be held in Istanbul. Initial meetings could begin as early as next week, though they are more likely to start after the New Year’s holiday, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatically sensitive negotiations.

U.S. officials said the purpose would be to test Iranian willingness to halt certain nuclear activities as an interim step, or a ­“confidence-building” measure, to ease international fears that Tehran is secretly developing nuclear weapons. In exchange, Iran would be offered technical help with its civilian nuclear program and a lifting of a ban on the purchase of aircraft parts, the officials said.

The interim measures, if accepted, could be the starting point for a future “grand bargain” that would set permanent limits on Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for rolling back economic sanctions, the officials said.

The P5-plus-1 group — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — made similar demands during three fruitless rounds of talks with Iran in the spring. Iranian officials complained at the time that the group’s proposal did not contain sufficient sanctions relief and said they would await the outcome of the U.S. presidential election before resuming the effort. Since those talks, international sanctions on Iran have been tightened.

The senior U.S. official said the proposal made to Iran had been updated since the previous round, adding that there were “some ideas out there” for sweetening the incentives if Tehran showed genuine interest in seeking a resolution.

“The package has the same bone structure, but with some slightly different tattoos,” the official said. “We want to see if they’re in a position to make a deal, or if they’re even capable of making a deal.”

A key demand in both the old and new proposals would require Iran to suspend production
of ­medium-enriched uranium, which can be easily converted to weapon-grade fuel for nuclear bombs, the officials said. Iran also would be pressed to freeze operations at a recently completed uranium enrichment plant inside a mountain near the city of Qom.

Iran has made significant advances in its nuclear program since the last round of talks in June. But it has also suffered extreme fiscal distress, its economy battered by sanctions that have slashed oil exports and crippled the nation’s banking industry.

While railing against the sanctions in public, some Iranian leaders have hinted at a new willingness to accept restrictions on key nuclear programs, current and former U.S. officials say.

“Sanctions have increased dramatically their interest in finding a way out,” said Dennis Ross, who until last year was a top adviser to the White House on Iran. He cautioned that recent signals from Iran suggest that its leadership is “preparing the ground for negotiations, but not necessarily for decisions” in favor of a nuclear deal.

U.S. officials were encouraged by reports of progress at talks Friday between Iranian officials and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The U.N. nuclear watchdog has been prodding Iran for months to grant its inspectors access to the Parchin military base, where Iranian scientists are suspected of having done nuclear weapons research a decade ago.

After two days of talks, IAEA officials said the two sides were close to an agreement on a plan for resolving disputes over Iran’s past nuclear research. A final agreement allowing inspectors to visit Parchin could be signed next month, Herman Nackaerts, head of the agency’s safeguards department, told reporters in Vienna.

“We had a good meeting,” Nackaerts said.

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